A Proposal for the “Veteran Player-Coach” Position

Our beloved pastime has a long history of over-the-hill veteran players serving important mentor roles around the game, but the primacy of the Competitive Balance Tax and the perpetual crush of roster spot competition and “efficiency” has rendered these players largely moot. Players like the 40-something version of Jason Giambi, a bench bat for years on the strength of his contributions to his team as a leader beyond just his metric value, have grown frightfully rare. It is sad to see that sort of quasi-player/coach fade to memory.

As I look over the U.S. Olympic Roster, I see an awful lot of well-loved veterans who have lost a step over the years and, with that lost step, any serious hope of a consistent job under the new normal of roster construction. But I am convinced there remains value to the game of baseball to have players like Todd Frazier, Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir, and David Robertson around the sport beyond what they contribute to the back of the baseball card. A glance at the current free agent list reveals a small glut of other interesting, memorable players, such as Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, Matt Wieters, and Neil Walker, to name a few.

As I think about these abandoned veterans, I’m struck by the memory of Nick Swisher in 2016. After he was done as a major leaguer, he spent his final season at Triple-A for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders as a sort of player-coach. His ambitions were a return to the majors, but by all accounts, he remained the sort of effervescent baseball bro that defined his playing career. He embodied the sort of positive veteran influence that can help young players acclimate to the big leagues.

That sort of player (and person) adds value not just to an organization’s growth or potential MLB production, but also as a built-in “veteran draw” for a minor league fanbase. Baseball is better — at all levels – when someone like Swisher can have a longer impact on the game. Active veterans working on a day-to-day basis with prospects should be the low-hanging fruit of player development, but unconscionable Triple-A salaries and roster concerns render it a rarity.

Here’s my proposal: the next CBA should make a provision for each organization to have a special player-coach. How would it work?

  • Each organization is allowed to designate one player as their “Veteran Player-Coach.”
  • Each designee receives a set salary of $1.5 million that exists outside the constraints of the Competitive Balance Tax and does not require a 40-man roster spot. Each designee is also granted a full no trade clause. In essence, this player becomes a 41st man on the MLB reserve list. The salary should be adjusted upwards over time at percentages reflecting increases to the minimum veteran salary.
  • Each designee can be called up and optioned like any standard pre-arbitration player. This role would grant each designated veteran player a new “option” which would allow him to be sent down to the minors. When on the major league roster, the player would use up one of the 26-man roster spots.
  • Each designee can be assigned to any minor league level in the organization without deference to roster restrictions, similar to a rehabbing player.
  • Each designee must have played long enough in their career to achieve free agency.[1]
  • Each organization only receives one “Veteran Player-Coach” designation per season and it must be allocated by the time MLB Active List is due on Opening Day. A team that does not use the designation by that time waives the option for the rest of the season.
  • Each designee can be traded or designated for assignment, but an acquiring team is burdened by all usual player movement constraints. If a team acquires another team’s designee via trade, they must assign the player to the MLB Active List and pay the pro-rated portion of the designee’s $1.5m salary. The acquiring team would be required to treat the designee as they would any other veteran acquisition (which is to say they lose the ability to assign the player without passing through waivers and the player’s option to elect free agency).
  • Finally, if a team trades or releases their designee, there is no option to appoint a replacement selection.

So what does this look like in practice?

Let’s use the case of Todd Frazier, who was a vaguely useful player in 2020. While his total contributions were only around replacement level, he managed a .236/.302/.382 line (89 wRC+) while playing a usable 1B and 3B in a modest sample. That’s almost precisely the sort of player who — as he has this year — ends up in a camp on a minor league deal and sees a few plate appearances as an injury replacement.

Frazier is a player who has received frequent plaudits throughout his career for his clubhouse leadership and energy. He’s been known as a mentor to young players. Now imagine Frazier in this new Veteran Player-Coach role. Pittsburgh would be able to use him as needed at the major league level, such as when confronted with Colin Moran’s recent injury, but could also deploy him across the farm as a mentor to other players. Frazier could step into a leadership role throughout the organization and spend time working with infielders like Oneil Cruz and Nick Gonzales while staying in shape to serve as an MLB option. There would be some value as well to the Indianapolis Indians or Altoona Curve getting to market the former All Star when he is in town.

I have to imagine that nearly every player interested in an Olympic role would have been open to this sort of deployment. It’s the perfect way to keep memorable veterans around a little longer and serves as a breeding ground for future coaches. It would also stand as a modest win for the MLBPA — 30 new jobs at $1.5m per year that will help keep some measure of roster consistency in the game without substantially hindering the possibilities for other players.

For instance, Jedd Gyorko is currently managing in the MLB Draft League, but the sport might be better if he was mentoring the future generation as a player-coach in some team’s farm system around cameos in The Show.

Of course, some teams will attempt to game the system and slot in a lefty reliever they’ll use once every two weeks or so. But is it the worst thing if Rich Hill pitches until he’s 50? I think that’s a perfectly fine tradeoff to make.

It’s easy to imagine a lot of fits here: Kemp on the Dodgers, Braun on the Brewers, Robertson on the Yankees, Zack Cozart on the Reds. It would be fun to see Edwin Encarnacion throw on a Blue Jays uniform again or Matt Adams in Cardinals red. And is there any real baseball fan that wouldn’t want to see Bartolo Colon toe the rubber in Queens a few more times?

The “Veteran Player-Coach” designation would help baseball teams better recognize the contributions of beloved players, augment player development, and make baseball just a little bit more fun.

[1] I had considered a “Hall of Fame eligible” standard, but I figured guys like Gyorko and Rocco Baldelli, who embody the spirit of what I’m trying to achieve, would be lost in the sauce. I love Tyler Austin, to pick out one veteran on the Olympic roster, but I think a player needs a longer career to really fulfill the collateral requirements for the role. The roughly seven years required to achieve full free agency seems like a good way to split the difference.

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Great idea. And you got to my immediate thought which was the Promotional Plus of having Jeff Samardzija at a San Jose Giants game. And for the matter to come in for three batters at Wille Mays Field at Oracle Park in SF.
All good for Baseball.